House panel puts more focus on at-risk and bilingual students in school funding bill

The House of Representatives chamber of the Kansas Statehouse is pictured July 23, 2014 in Topeka.

? A sharply divided House committee added language to a proposed new school funding bill that would require school districts to earmark a portion of the money they raise through local property taxes to fund programs that target bilingual students and students at risk of failing or dropping out.

Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Belleville, offered that change, saying it would address concerns the Kansas Supreme Court raised about current funding and the number of Kansas students who are not performing at grade level in reading and math.

Opponents of that change, however, said it would tie the hands of local school boards and could have far-reaching effects on other programs that districts fund through their local option budgets.

“We’re not here to satisfy the school boards. We’re here to satisfy the courts,” Aurand said in response.

The committee is putting together a new school funding formula that is similar in many ways to the one that was in place since the early 1990s, which lawmakers repealed in 2015.

It establishes a uniform, per-pupil funding amount for each district, but it adds certain “weightings” to certain subgroups of students, including at-risk students and English language learners to reflect the higher cost of educating them.

For funding purposes, each student who is eligible for free meals at school is counted as an at-risk student, although programs that target at-risk students could be aimed at a broader population.

At-risk and bilingual weightings account for about 25 percent of the roughly $3 billion a year the state spends on K-12 education.

In its original form, the bill would require districts to set aside a proportionate amount of their general state aid into a special fund to pay for programs directed at those two types of students, and the money in those funds could only be used for programs and services specifically aimed at helping those groups of students.

Aurand’s amendment would extend that same rule to the money districts raise through their local option budgets, so if 25 percent of a district’s funding comes from at-risk and bilingual weightings, then 25 percent of the money the district gets, both in its general state aid and its local option budget, would have to be earmarked for those programs and services.

When the original school finance formula was written in 1992, local option budgets were intended to be a source of funding for additional, enhanced programs and services, above and beyond those required under state law.

But local school officials have said that over the years, as general state aid failed to keep pace with rising costs, districts were forced to rely more heavily on their local option budgets to fund core services.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, argued that some districts have already earmarked the programs and services they want to fund with their local option budgets, and she said Aurand’s amendment could force them to “cannibalize” those programs in order to comply with the new language.

Aurand’s amendment was adopted on a 9-8 vote, with chairman Larry Campbell, R-Olathe, casting the tie-breaking vote.

That amendment was one of several the committee worked on during a meeting Tuesday that lasted more than three hours. The panel plans to continue working on additional amendments Wednesday and hopes to send a final draft of the bill to the full House later this week.